In this 99U talk, bestselling author Tony Schwartz observes: The world is full of intractable problems like climate change that require new and creative thinking. So how can we use the creative process to take on some of the more serious obstacles of our lives and world? First, we need to be at the top of our collective creative games — and that means fully understanding the creative process.
Schwartz shares the five often counter-intuitive steps of the creative process. Most important, says Schwartz, is that we manage our energy and take time apart from our day-to-day to solve tough problems. As he says, “The place where you get your best ideas is not when you are trying to get the best ideas.”
Tony Schwartz is Founder and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance.
Tony’s most recent book, Be Excellent At Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. His previous book, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy Not Time, co- authored with Jim Loehr, spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 28 languages.
Tony is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, and is one of HBR.org’s most popular bloggers. His most recent HBR article, The Paradox of Productivity: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of Employees By Demanding Lesswas published in May, 2010. He also writes for numerous other publications, including the New York Times.
These are new ideas that I’m going to be sharing, and they’re very meaningful to me. I want you to think about those issues for a moment– climate change, health care, inequality, poverty, guns.
Have we ever been more polarized and paralyzed around a set of issues than we are today? How do we solve the intractable problems, what feel like intractable problems, that we’re facing today? How do we learn to live happily, peacefully with each other across these great divides that have emerged?
So here’s what Einstein said about it. He said, “We can’t solve our problems at the same level of thinking that created them.” Created them– your creatives. So I want to talk to you in these few minutes I have about addressing these problems we face through the prism of creativity, because creativity, after all, at its simplest level is about seeing the new, isn’t it?
So creativity– it’s not magical, although it’s often posed in the world as if it is magical. But in fact, there is something called a creative process, and it’s actually less subjective than you would think. It’s a process, in other words, that can be learned. And in fact, researchers have come to a relative consensus that there are distinct stages of creativity that emerge– five of them to be specific– and it turns out as well that they move between two very opposite ways of thinking. So there’s the right hemisphere way of thinking, which, as most of you know, is intuitive and spatial and metaphorical, nonverbal, and big picture. And there is, by contrast, on the other side, left hemisphere thinking, which is verbal logical, rational, deductive. The problem is that we have been taught, most of us, throughout our lives to choose up sides between these two very different ways of thinking. And what happens is we lose or never gain the capacity to move between them freely and flexibly, because knowing how to access both these hemispheres of the brain, these two ways of thinking on demand, is an enormous advantage to anyone who is able to do it. It’s the advantage of the whole brain. It’ll help you in the most immediate sense to be more creative in anything you do. But beyond that, I believe it’s a window into solving the most challenging problems that we are facing. So let’s talk about these stages of creativity. The first one, the initial one, is called first insight. That’s where you find and define the problem that you want to solve, and it has a right hemisphere lean to it, meaning it typically happens as an imaginative and intuitive leap, this question that appears. And one of the most important questions that ever came up for me occurred when I was 35 years old– unfortunately, quite some years ago. And I had just written a book with somebody you may or may not know called “The Art of the Deal.” It was Donald Trump, and that book had unexpectedly– because at the time, he wasn’t particularly well-known– turned into a massive bestseller. Why would that raise a problem? After all, what it did was it gave me all the things or many of the things that I thought I’d always wanted, a visible success, a certain small measure of fame, a whole series of opportunities, and more money than I thought I would ever earn. But as the months went by, something didn’t sit right. The problem that I needed to solve, it turned out, appeared to me in the form of a series of questions that begin to gnaw at me, beginning with this one– how come I don’t feel better when this seems to be the apotheosis of success? Is this all that money can buy? Is there a more satisfying and meaningful route to success and satisfaction than this? And I can say I think with some confidence that– [LAUGHTER] –I’m the only living human being who was led to the Dharma by Donald Trump. But sure enough, in some paradoxical way I was. I didn’t at that time know about the stages of creativity. I knew nothing about them. But this desire, this hunger to answer this series of questions that had begun to rumble around in my brain led me to the second stage of creativity, which is called saturation. It’s the gathering of information, and I will tell you that for creatives, it’s not very exciting, most typically. Why? Well, it’s dull often. It’s not very sexy. What it specifically isn’t is creative. But it’s critical, and it’s undervalued, and it’s about immersing yourself, again, paradoxically in the know. It’s about understanding the knowledge that came before you. It’s a left hemisphere stage of creativity, which is about analysis and reading and thinking and learning and understanding in a rational, deductive, step-by-step way. And it’s why an artist, for example, a young artist is well-advised to learn to paint realistically, and even potentially to copy the masters before setting out to do something more imaginative. I mean, after all, if you don’t know how to paint realistically, and you’re an artist, and you want to be an abstract expressionist, what is it you’re abstracting from? It’s the same reason that a foundation in classical music and music theory are useful for any musician, whatever kind of music it is that you eventually want to learn, because the issue is that we each stand on the shoulders of what’s come before us. If you don’t stand on the shoulders of what’s come before you, if you aren’t willing to immerse yourself in it, you don’t know what you don’t know. So during saturation, we honor those faults we have stood on the shoulder of, and this is hard work. Cal was talking about it. This is the work that researchers now know involves if you want to develop a genuine expertise at any complex endeavor. And it’s a reflection of the recognition that knowledge and skills are power. So saturation is about creating a strong foundation. Now for me, saturation was about diving into the work of a group of people, dozens of them, who had made wisdom or the search for wisdom central in their lives. And over a series of years, I talked to hundreds of physicians and psychologists and philosophers and mystics and scientists about the work they’d done, and if they had a practice, I did the practice. I put in the time, because what I wanted was an answer. I was hungry for an answer, and sure enough, these folks were more than willing– each of them– to give me an answer. And I will tell you that along the way, I met a fair number of them who were charismatic and persuasive and exciting to be around. But over time, I began in every case to see the shortcomings of any given answer that I was being offered by one of these folks. And so what happened is I grew more and more frustrated, and interestingly, frustration is what leads you, in most cases, to the third stage of creativity, which is known as incubation or thinking aside. When you can’t solve the problem, what happens is at some point, you step away. You take a rest. You give up. You do something else. And in that time, whether you’re aware of it or not, there is a shift that occurs, and you move from that left hemisphere dominance into a quieter, more restful right hemisphere state, because that’s what happens when you’re not thinking actively. I mean, after all, think about it for yourself. Where are you when you get your best ideas? Where are you? In the shower. Taking a walk in nature. Taking a drive. Dreaming at night or daydreaming during the day. Here’s the one thing we know. The place where you get your– the time when you get your best ideas is not when you’re trying to get your best ideas, is it? It’s not when you’re sitting at your desk with your face scrunched up seeking to solve some difficult problem. So that tells us something, doesn’t it? It tells us that there’s a value in deliberately turning off the mind or turning off the verbal left hemisphere at selected times to step away. Einstein actually referred to this as taking the time for a little think. The French call it [SPEAKING FRENCH], thinking aside. It’s that time that is so difficult in the world we live in and the world you live in to take in these times, meaning a specifically selected period of time, where you’re not actively trying to get something done. So the fourth stage of creativity emerges out of the third, and it’s called illumination. It’s the a-ha experience. It’s the breakthrough. It’s the big “I see it” moment that you have. Now for me, the big a-ha, the illumination, was that there wasn’t an answer to be found in the work I was doing. There wasn’t one answer to the exclusion of others, and the insight was this– that wisdom is actually about the capacity to embrace paradox, to hold opposites, to be open to conflicting perspectives. This is what F Scott Fitzgerald said about it. “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in your mind and still retain the ability to function.” So that idea was a big a-ha for me, but it wasn’t the end of the game. It wasn’t the end, because the fifth stage of creativity is about shifting back into the left hemisphere. It’s called verification or making it real. It’s about translating the insight that you’ve had, the breakthrough that you’ve had, into something that’s accessible and usable and practical and understandable. And for me, that was writing the book called “What Really Matters– Searching for Wisdom in America,” and publishing it. But interestingly, that was 20 years ago. In the 20 years since, or for the 20 years since, I have spent virtually all of my working time trying to unpack and better understand that insight, the notion of integrating the opposites as a route to wisdom and higher productivity and more satisfaction and a greater degree of meaning. When we go into organizations, and I say “we.” I built a company around these ideas called the Energy Project, and when we go into organizations, we’re trying to make a series of counterintuitive arguments to them about what will make them more successful. So we’re suggesting to them that it is not simply about getting people to expend energy or expend more energy that leads to higher value. It’s about balancing the expenditure of energy with the intermittent renewal of energy. And it’s not about getting more out of people, which is what most organizations think is their challenge with the people who work there. Rather, it’s about investing in people so that you free them, and you fuel them, and you inspire them to bring more of themselves to work every day. And interestingly, this business has turned out to be profitable. It’s gotten more and more profitable over the years, this business. I do. But it’s also allowed me and allowed the group I work with to add value to people every single day. Profitability or profit and service to others sound like opposites. They sound antithetical. But they don’t need to be. We don’t need to treat them that way. There is something called conscious capitalism. That’s possible. So what’s standing in the way? Our limitation is our certainty and our need to choose up sides. We adopt a world view, and we find it very difficult to let go of that world view. We can’t see that anybody else has anything reasonable to offer. So what we end up with is a zero sum game, a zero sum game. In other words, it’s I win, so you lose. It’s I’m right, so you’re wrong. And it’s my away is good, so your way must be a bad way. And what it leads to– Gloria Steinem said this– what it leads to is an either/or world. It’s survival of the fittest. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, except even dogs don’t eat each other. So if you want to understand the very core of this, you’ll have to go to the issue of value. How do you feel in a zero sum world, in a competitive world, in a win-lose world, in a good-bad world, when somebody threatens your value, when your value fields under siege, when your very– and here’s what I’ll suggest to you. The way you feel is that your literal survival feels as if it’s at stake. And what do you do? You get defensive. You fight back. You push. You dig into your own position. We want to convince ourselves that we’re right even more, and we lose the capacity to value the enduring principles of other world views that we ought to be including. We lose the ability, in other words, to value what is valuable, to value what is valuable, and we end up projecting it onto other people. So when they don’t agree with us, they’re ignorant. They’re reactionary. They’re unenlightened, and they’re squishy. They’re soft-headed. So I’m suggesting to you that there is a solution to this, and that is the opposite. It’s to value what is valuable in others. It’s to value what is valuable in others, and that begins meeting people where they live, not where you live. That’s a big shift. Empathy– Brunei is an expert on this. Empathy is a very high level of capacity, the ability to actually step into someone else’s shoes. This isn’t just about tolerance. This is about moving into somebody else’s space and deeply understanding what it is that they’re saying and being able to be open to it. It’s substituting curiosity for your certainty. It’s resisting stereotypes, and it’s recognizing that we are all in this together. In an interdependent world, which we increasingly are, for better or for worse, whether we want to or not, we are all in this together. We rise or fall together, and the greatest leaders have recognized that addressing people at the level at which they operate, addressing people in a language that they understand is critical to building a shared space. Think of Nelson Mandela sitting in that prison year after year after year and getting to the point where he had an opportunity to negotiate for an end to apartheid from his prison cell with the South African prime minister, Botha, PW Botha– how spacious a consciousness did you need to be able to do that? Or think of Martin Luther King preaching nonviolence to a group of followers at precisely the time when a white majority was inflicting violence on them. How much ability to hold opposites do you need to do for that to be true, for that to be possible? That’s what great leadership is, and what it reflects is a consciousness shift. We need to learn to shift to see more deeply and widely and inclusively. That’s all consciousness is. It’s seeing more. So Rabbi Hillel got this understanding of what it means to hold opposites at a very deep level in the first century. He said simply this– “If you’re not for yourself, then who will be for you? But if you are only for yourself, then what are you? And if not now, when?” What we need is evolution, not revolution. Revolution sweeps away what has come before it. Evolution transcends the existing limitations and includes, nonetheless, the value of the stages that came before us. We need evolution. What we need is an evolutionary leak, and you are the people to do it. Think about this. The Renaissance, the Renaissance was instigated and carried through by fewer in this room today. people who can make this happen in this room today. So evolution transcends and includes. It honors what’s known already, but it goes to another level. And so I ask you, gone by since Rabbi Hillel said what he said about holding these opposites, about learning to take care of ourselves, while also taking care of others, and while taking care of this precarious planet we live on, and in together.
We need to do all of those things together. We need to take better care of ourselves, take care of others, take care of the planet. We need to resolve to evolve. We need to resolve together to evolve. We need together to be the change. So carpe diem. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]